Here’s a trick for picking the best new series of the season: go with whatever sounds too dumb to work. Last year’s new crop of pilots included FOX’s modern day retelling of the Sleepy Hollow legend, but with Ichabod Crane as an action hero and a Headless Horseman as part of a biblical apocalypse. This year’s You Must Be Kidding award once again goes to FOX and its new prequel show, Gotham. As in, Gotham City (peace to R. Kelly). But like, pre-Bruce Wayne becoming Batman. Thing is, both of these shows are great.
While Gotham centers around Not Yet Commissioner Gordon, Bruce Wayne and some of his greatest foes do enter the fray—just not as the fully-formed legends they’ll eventually be. We open with the galvanizing murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne, which finds The Dark Knight as a mere pre-teen. Selina Kyle/Catwoman is about the same age, a homeless pickpocket with really cool goggles. The Penguin is a lowly henchman in a crime syndicate led by new character Fish Mooney. Other familiar names are dropped and hints at the future are implied.
And honestly, those winks are where the pilot sags. They range from unnecessary to just plain annoying, with knowing dialogue that toggles between fun and corny. Gotham will benefit more from less on-the-nose scenes, like a late interaction between Fish Mooney and a man interviewing for a job at her club. Is he actually a certain funny villain? Or is this just an innocent, world-building pilot scene? The guessing game is much more fun than conversations that practically have a giant Bat-Signal blinking in the corner.
The series is much more fun overall when it stays true to its premise and focuses on Gordon, our hero on a doomed quest to clean up the city, played with square-jawed naiveté by Ben McKenzie. The great Donal Logue will undoubtedly reap most of the critical acclaim for his scenery-chewing take on Gordon’s partner, Harvey Bullock, a seen-it-all veteran who’s very much a product of his environment. But without Gordon—the likable straight man in a futile battle against the madness and corruption—to invest in, the series would fall apart. McKenzie’s Gordon is more than just a mouthy Ryan Atwood with a badge; after growing up in The OC and paying dues as rookie beat cop on Southland, he’s graduated into a more than capable leading man. Together, he and Logue anchor a series that's much more noir than fantasy, a gritty crime drama with flashes of superhero genre elements slowly but surely bubbling to the surface. This is Nolan's Bat-universe, pre-Dark Knight Rises, with the mob front and center against a '70s-era, Serpico-esque backdrop.
It’s going to take at least five episodes before Gotham can truly be judged. An enjoyable, promising pilot is one thing, but there’s no telling what episode three (or 12) of this season will look like. (Next week's ep is titled "Selina Kyle." Got it.) Presumably the Penguin (who, in the first episode, proves there’s still plenty of tension to go around despite knowing everyone’s fate) will see the most screen time out of all future foes; it’s been heavily suggested that this season will chronicle his rise to power. In the meantime Jada Pinkett Smith’s hammy-yet-menacing Fish should prove a fun foil. So far series creator Bruno Heller has had all the right, reassuring answers in the press run leading up to tonight’s premiere. Let’s see if he lives up to them.
Meanwhile, elsewhere in the cracked FOX universe, “Leftenant” Mills is trapped in purgatory with the Headless Horsemen’s even scarier boss, Moloch. If you’re an intrigued newcomer overwhelmed by just that sentence, don’t be. Sleepy Hollow is, as ever, not a show to drown in its own plot. In the hands of writers who, thankfully, don’t take things too seriously, the storytelling is economical, equal parts adventure and supernatural, and most importantly, fun as hell.
Without giving too much away about tonight’s premiere, it doesn’t take long to get back into the action, with an hour of television that doubles down on everything that’s lovable about the show. There’s a narrative sleight of hand that’s appreciated, even if it is a bit obvious. An otherwise serious moment is punctuated by a new addition to the recurring gag of Ichabod vs. Technology. And best of all, yet another historical figure is revealed to have been a key member in the fight against evil. Last year, it was George Washington. This year, the honors go to Ben Franklin, starting with a ridiculous spin on the night he went kite flying during stormy weather.
If there’s anything to be apprehensive of going into this season, it’s that the writers’ grip on the series’ tone might tighten into something too serious. The premiere is titled “This Means War,” which Abbie reiterates in the closing minutes. That’s all good and thematic—the horseman of War is this season’s main villain, after all—but hopefully the battle for good and evil leaves room for more Abbie and Crane banter (Tom Mison and Nicole Beharie might have the best platonic chemistry on the tube right now), Crane fumbling iPhones, and cool, innovative Monster-of-the-Week episodes. Judging from this first outing though, Monday nights in fall '14 belong to FOX.
Frazier Tharpe is a staff writer at Complex and a self-proclaimed Stan for Batman, The OC, and the legend of Sleepy Hollow. He tweets here.